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Self-Knowledge • Trauma & Childhood

What is Emotional Neglect?

When we imagine the difficulties involved in a so-called ‘bad childhood’, we most readily think in terms of children who are physically harmed – beaten, underfed, sexually abused – or else treated with active contempt: screamed at, blamed, put down, mocked and tormented.

Such harrowing images make it hard for us to picture that there might be another, in many ways more prevalent yet just as damaging form of injury to which children may be exposed. In this case, there is no physical violence, there is no taunting or shouting. It looks – at first glance – as if all must be well. But that would be to miss the particular kind of wound that can be inflicted through what psychologists term ‘emotional neglect.’

We’re so used to focusing on abuses that spring from interventions, we forget those that can equally painfully flow from absence. The emotionally neglected child isn’t screamed at or hit, locked up or jeered at. they are just – often very subtly – ignored. A parent doesn’t smile at them very much. There is never any time to take a look at the drawing they just did or the story they wrote. No one remembers their stuffed animal’s name. No one notices that they are looking sad and that the first day at school might have been very difficult. There’s always something more urgent to do than spend time with them (perhaps another sibling to think about or the demands of work or of their partner. There might be a lot of parties as well). The parent seems in no way charmed or interested. There are no cuddles or hair ruffles, there are no nicknames or terms of endearment. Birthdays get forgotten. Tears aren’t dried or consoled. The parent doesn’t look the child in the eye. They might, shortly after the birth, go off and live in another household. Or, what might feel equivalent, in another galaxy.

None of this may seem – at first glance – to be especially bad, particularly because the insidious behaviour is largely invisible. It is compatible with all kinds of outward signs of healthy family life. There can be emotional neglect in a beautiful home with a large well stocked fridge and a swimming pool in the garden. Emotionally neglected children may be sent to the best schools and equipped with tutors and nannies. Everything can look very sane and privileged.

But that isn’t to say that no damage is being done. The psychologist William James presciently observed that it might as bad, if not worse, to be on the receiving end of indifference as of physical torment: ‘No more fiendish punishment could be devised, were such a thing possible, than that one should be turned loose in society and remain absolutely unnoticed by all the members thereof. If no one turned around when we entered, answered when we spoke, or minded what we did, but if every person we met “cut us dead”, and acted as if we were non-existent things, a kind of rage and impotent despair would before long well up in us, from which the cruellest bodily torture would be a relief.’

Rage and impotent despair are precisely what a child may feel when it registers the extent to which it doesn’t matter to those who brought it onto the earth, even if these people have never punched them in the back of the head nor stopped them having an allowance. Except that the rage and despair are unlikely to be conscious and cleanly felt. Far more likely, these emotions will mutate into feelings of shame, comingled with continued admiration and respect for those who elicited it. 

A crucial fact of psychological life is the disinclination of any child to think there is something wrong with its parent; it will go to almost any lengths to prevent the idea emerging that its parent may be mentally unwell or fundamentally brutish. It will remain attached and obsessed by the most vicious and uncaring figure whom a objective observer might see through in an instant. 

The child will do anything rather than entertain the idea that an injury has been done to it by its own progenitor – especially if the parent is charming to other people and impressive in the professional sphere. The child will just assume that there must be something deeply wrong with itself to justify the indifference. It must have failed in some way, it must in its essence be profoundly ugly, repulsive, deformed or lacking. This is the only conceivable explanation for the blankness with which their existence is received.

The adult who emerges from such a complicated, veiled childhood is likely to be in a confused state. On the surface, they may experience only good will and a continued desire to please their early caregivers. But deep within themselves, they may feel lacerating doubt, paranoia and self-contempt. To numb such feelings, they may take to drink or develop numbing, calming addictions to keep themselves from constant encounters with their perceived repulsiveness. 

A measure of resolution comes when we can take on board the term ‘emotional neglect’ and treat it, and thereby our own stories, with requisite seriousness. Our childhood sorrows may not rank among the most obvious or newsworthy, but they may be substantial and genuine nevertheless. Our levels of shame attest as much. We were not hit, but we were injured. We failed to receive the love that makes people firm and whole, that allows them to feel authentic and deserving and prevents them from being impressed by those who mistreat them and wanting to kill themselves when they mess up. We hear so much about the virtues of bravery, we miss out on the importance of learning to feel – with appropriate cathartic intent – usefully sorry for ourselves.

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